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Back in grade school, even if a given subject didn’t come easily to you, assuming you gave it your best shot, you could still get an “E” for effort. Unfortunately, when it comes to weight loss, such consolation prizes offer little in the way of comfort.

If your attempts at weight loss have met mostly with mixed or temporary successes, don’t despair. Give yourself some credit for persisting in the face of adversity. And give yourself the benefit of the doubt, too: If you’re carrying extra weight, it’s not because you’re lazy — or even unlucky, although your genes may play a role. It’s more likely because there’s a world of internal and external circumstances working against you. You can change all that, but first you have to wise up to some basic facts.

The reality is, in this culture of stresses and excesses, maintaining a healthy weight requires some serious know-how. Trying to lose weight before you’ve acquired that essential wisdom is a little like ending up in a graduate-level organic chemistry class without having taken the intro course: Until you have the big picture and basic skills under your belt, not much is going to sink in except a maddening sense of frustration.

To make sense of weight loss, you first need to know how it all fits together, what common mistakes to avoid — and how to use our quick-study guide to coach you through the core material. So in this article we’ll outline the essential lessons in four key areas — the ones you most need to master so you can manage your weight successfully.

We won’t suggest that these basic concepts represent the be-all and end-all compendium of weight-loss knowledge. But once you get these prerequisites nailed, you’ll experience far fewer setbacks, and you’ll start building the kind of momentum that may have eluded you in the past.

Learning From Mistakes

One of the best things you can do before embarking on any weight-loss program is to look closely at what has and hasn’t worked for you in the past. Choose to see your past experiences not as failures but as experiments — all of which are leading you in the direction of a very valuable discovery.

If you’ve tried lots of things and none of them worked (or haven’t worked for very long), it may be tempting to say, “But I’ve tried everything!”

Keep an open mind: Perhaps you’ve adjusted your eating without much nutritional know-how. Or you’ve largely neglected exercise. Or you’ve embarked on a weight-loss plan without considering your schedule and lifestyle. Or perhaps you’ve done all that stuff right but still found yourself repeatedly derailed by social and environmental triggers, a metabolism-disrupting health condition, stress, or some form of self-sabotage.

As long as you can look at this information objectively, it’s potentially useful to you.

At the same time, you may also have to let go of what you think you know about weight loss — a topic more fraught with myths, misinformation and oversimplification than virtually any other.

Here’s the truth: Losing unwanted weight and keeping it off really isn’t as simple as eating less and exercising more. Rather, it requires a variety of thoughtful life adjustments, and experimentally combining separate-but-intertwining skill sets in four key areas: lifestyle, psychology, nutrition and fitness.

Those would be the topics you’d see covered in a class called Weight Loss 101, and that’s precisely what we’ll cover here. So read up, take a few notes, and complete the extra-credit study questions. You’ll come away with the insights and wisdom that form the basis of most major weight-loss breakthroughs.

1. Lifestyle

Most seasoned weight-loss experts agree that people who commit to making lasting changes in several aspects of their lives — not just isolated changes to diet and exercise — are the most successful in losing weight and keeping it off. Change your life, they say, and your body will follow.

Start by honestly assessing any imbalances or trouble spots in your life, and pay attention to the interactions between various sectors such as work, home, relationships and money. If one area of your life is distinctly unhappy or out of balance, it will tend to create problems in other areas of your life that may, in turn, inhibit weight loss.

For example, if you’re working long hours on the job, your stress level will probably rise, leaving you more vulnerable to cravings for unhealthy foods. Plus, you’ll be short on time to shop and cook, eat well, and exercise. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you could throw your metabolic system out of whack — increasing hormones, like ghrelin, that trigger hunger.

To achieve healthy, sustainable weight loss, you need to address the underlying patterns and lifestyle behaviors that may have predisposed you to gaining weight in the first place.

Laurel Mellin, MA, RD, director of the Institute for Health Solutions, and an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests taking an inventory to identify areas of your life that are currently less than healthy.

“Most people automatically assess their exercise and food, which is great,” notes Mellin, “but you also need to look at how you are getting your pleasure and joy in life.”

“Joy,” says Mellin, “is the most effective appetite suppressant.”

“Joy,” says Mellin, “is the most effective appetite suppressant.” And in our time-compressed lives, it’s in too-short supply. Ask yourself, she suggests: “Am I getting eight to nine hours of sleep, some time for intimacy, time to restore and time for meaningful pursuits that fulfill me?” If not, you’re probably looking at some core triggers for weight gain — and some insidious obstacles to weight loss.

A lifestyle in balance, explains Mellin, “helps turn off the stress hormones that ramp up appetites and contribute to accumulations of belly fat.” It also gives us more opportunities to experience surges of feel-good neurotransmitters. “There’s a whole array of healthy chemicals that are released as we exercise, laugh, play, dance, sing, pray and cuddle,” says Mellin. At a biochemical level, she notes, “all these aspects of a healthy, balanced lifestyle encourage activity and inhibit the drive to overeat.” They also leave us feeling good about ourselves and, thus, more predisposed to making healthier decisions.

Lifestyle: Study-Guide Questions

  1. Are you leading the life of a healthy, active person? Do you have the interests, priorities and passions of a healthy person? What positive changes or areas of learning do you think might make the biggest difference?
  2. Do you have enough sources of healthy pleasure, meaning, creativity and joy in your life?
  3. Are you aware of any lifestyle habits or addictions (eating, drinking, skipping sleep, overspending, overworking, watching TV, people-pleasing) that are absorbing your energy or holding you back? What things are taking up an excess of your time and focus?
  4. Do you have a variety of fun, relaxing or exciting opportunities to move and use your body throughout the day and week?
  5. Are you surrounding yourself with other healthy and motivated people?

2. Psychology

Many people draw their mental and emotional commitment to weight loss from their deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction with themselves — or at least with their bodies. While this frustration can initially feel like a powerful motivator, it’s not particularly effective at supporting behavioral change. In fact, it can easily degenerate into a paralyzing cycle of self-hatred and self-sabotage. You can establish a mindset far more conducive to weight loss by tapping the power of awareness and getting in touch with your deepest motivations for wanting to live in a healthy, fit body. They could include a longing to express your true nature, a wish to enjoy life more, a desire to keep up with your grandchildren, or simply the drive to live in integrity with your values.

Rather than focusing on what you see as wrong with yourself, most weight-loss experts suggest it is much more effective to let your motivation come from a sense of how much better your life experience could be if it was powered by a sense of health, vitality and solid self-esteem. If your temptation is to be self-punishing (in thought or deed), be aware of those aspects of your personality and seize every opportunity to be kind and compassionate instead.

Rather than focusing on what you see as wrong with yourself, most weight-loss experts suggest it is much more effective to let your motivation come from a sense of how much better your life experience could be if it was powered by a sense of health, vitality and solid self-esteem.

“As long as unconscious internal expectations of self-loathing are alive and well within [ourselves], it’s reasonable to expect that we will overeat or find another way to soothe and comfort ourselves,” says Mellin, who pioneered a behavior-change and self-discovery methodology called The Solution to help people rewire their neurology in the direction of health and happiness. “Retraining the brain — the unconscious emotional core for authenticity, balance, security, intimacy, vibrancy and spiritual connection — turns off the drive to overeat and the drive to regain extra weight,” she says. “The most effective mindset is built by repeating a basic expectation of your life, not just your weight, which is: I am creating JOY in my life. That state of joy is technically called ‘homeostasis,’ in which the stress response is shut down and neurotransmitters are ramped up. Food becomes just food, and it’s easier to eat in a healthy way, get off the couch and enjoy our lives.”

When you make any kind of big shift, having some kind of supportive methodology and community can be invaluable, Mellin notes, because these support systems provide positive feedback, focus and encouragement while anchoring you in your own commitment and awareness. The Solution method, for example, integrates in-person, online and telephone community-support components.

Conventional weight-loss approaches tend to ignore the fact that your body and mind are inextricably linked: Nutrition and fitness have huge physiological impacts on your emotional and psychological well-being and your attitude. Meanwhile, feelings and mental wiring can have a huge effect on both your eating and activity patterns, and on your metabolism. Weight-loss efforts generally involve many significant behavior and attitude changes. And for that, you need both your heart and brain on board.

Psychology: Study-Guide Questions

  1. Are you approaching weight loss from an empowered perspective (the desire to reach your greatest potential and happiness as a person) rather than from a negative one (the assumption you are not “good enough,” and that only by losing weight can you become “OK”)?
  2. Have you explored your motivations and values around losing weight and articulated them in a clear, powerful way? Have you visualized your ideal body and your life as a fit, healthy person?
  3. Are you aware of how certain aspects of your psychology (belief or value systems, fears, patterns of negative thinking, assumptions, etc.) might be playing a role in making or keeping you overweight? Have you embraced a protocol for disassembling them and replacing them with more positive and empowering perspectives?
  4. Do you have a solid behavior-change methodology or a support group to help you become aware of destructive patterns, rewire negative thinking, monitor progress and overcome hurdles? Do you keep a journal to help you recognize the thoughts and feelings connected to your behavior patterns?

3. Nutrition

One of the biggest mistakes people make is approaching their eating habits as a diet, relying on reduced-calorie diet foods or highly restrictive eating plans to help them slim down (calories aren’t the most important metric when developing a healthy, satisfying approach to eating. See “Beyond Calorie Counting” for more).  This strategy generally backfires because it tends to reduce metabolism and degrade overall health, crippling the very systems required to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

It is far more useful to approach eating as a nourishing and pleasurable activity, the whole point of which is to provide you with the best health, energy and vitality possible.

When you start thinking of healthy eating as a way of supporting your body’s natural health and weight-regulating systems (rather than merely as a way of limiting calories), nutrition becomes a lot more interesting — and a lot more motivating. Good nutrition from a variety of whole, unprocessed foods is essential to building healthy metabolism and regulating appetite. It naturally helps heal the imbalanced biochemistry at the root of most weight challenges.

“Very few people understand that good nutrition makes losing weight far easier,” says Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, a licensed nutritionist who conducts weight-loss classes and counseling at Nutritional Weight and Wellness in St. Paul, Minn. That’s because proper nutrition helps correct the imbalances in blood sugar, hormones and neurotransmitters that encourage us to eat uncontrollably and to feel too fatigued and depressed to want to exercise.

“Very few people understand that good nutrition makes losing weight far easier. They may not see that the bagel they are having for breakfast is setting them up for irresistible sugar cravings and feelings of depression in the afternoon, or that missing out on good nutrition at lunch is causing them to overeat at night.”

It’s very common, Kvist points out, for people to blame themselves and their emotional weaknesses for eating behaviors that, in fact, have their roots in biochemical imbalances. “They may not see that the bagel they are having for breakfast is setting them up for irresistible sugar cravings and feelings of depression in the afternoon,” she says, “or that missing out on good nutrition at lunch is causing them to overeat at night.”

The most effective weight-loss approaches focus on, first and foremost, building metabolism and improving health. If you restrict caloric intake but fail to properly manage your blood-sugar levels, identify underlying food intolerances or correct nutritionally related hormonal imbalances, Kvist explains, you may find that your body simply adjusts by metabolically slowing down.

“Getting an appropriate balance of protein, carbs and fats is important,” Kvist continues, “but just as important is monitoring the nutritional character and quality of those macronutrients.” Striving for good variety and high quality in your food choices (freshness, wholeness, healthy preparation) is far more important than achieving some “perfect” mathematical ratio of calories, carbs, fats and proteins, says Kvist.

The advice is what you’ve heard before: Emphasize whole foods, including plenty of brightly colored vegetables; minimize your exposure to processed flours, sugars and trans fats; and eat breakfast and several other small meals  throughout the day. But the thinking here is different: Do all of this not to restrict calories, but to build vitality and get your body’s natural weight-loss mechanisms on your side.

That means, among other things, minimizing your intake of the artificial sweeteners, flavorings and other highly processed ingredients on which most diet foods are based.

“The same things that make us sick, make us fat,” says Mark Hyman, MD, medical director of  the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass., and author of UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss and The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First. He notes that our bodies respond to lackluster nutrition and toxins (sugary, starchy, processed foods and artificial ingredients) with irritation, confusion, hunger, low mood and inflammation. Effectively, our bodies slow down and puff up.

Conversely, explains Hyman, the same things that make us healthy (including whole foods and regular activity) naturally help moderate our appetite and optimize  our metabolism, inclining us to achieve an ideal weight without our having to try too hard. They also boost our mood and improve our sleep, both of which bolster our interest and ability to live a healthy lifestyle.

“You need to learn a little about how your body works. You also have to get organized about eating on a regular basis and not letting your blood sugar drop too low, because that can very quickly trigger a starvation response and cause your metabolic rate to drop.”

Eating healthy may require some new skills, acknowledges Hyman: “You need to learn a little about how your body works. You also have to get organized about eating on a regular basis and not letting your blood sugar drop too low, because that can very quickly trigger a starvation response and cause your metabolic rate to drop.”

But most important, says Hyman, know this: “Whole foods provide your body with more than fuel and basic nutrients. They provide complex information and metabolic instructions. Give your body the right information, and it will start solving your weight problems for you.”

Nutrition: Study-Guide Questions

  1. Have you abandoned the “diet mentality” in favor of a sustainable commitment to healthy eating for life?
  2. Have you educated yourself about nutrition and built a solid eating plan around a variety of fresh, whole nutritious foods you enjoy? Have you emphasized vegetables, fruits and legumes and minimized your intake of processed flours, sugars and artificial ingredients?
  3. Have you stocked your shelves and fridge with a variety of healthy, appealing foods — and learned some basic food-preparation skills?
  4. Have you planned your food intake and broken it into several small meals a day? Are you eating enough, and often enough, to fuel your activity demands and minimize cravings and hunger? Are you drinking enough water?
  5. Have you tracked your food intake in a journal and grown aware of any undermining eating patterns? Have you identified any food intolerances and taken note of how certain foods affect your energy levels and well-being?

4. Fitness

No weight-loss program is complete without an adequate fitness or activity plan. Working out — whether at a health club, a yoga studio, at home or outdoors — helps you build your metabolism and develop the lean muscle mass that’s essential to long-term weight management. It also gives you energy, balances blood-sugar levels, reduces stress and helps you build self-esteem. And one of the best parts about improving your fitness is that it makes losing weight easier and more enjoyable overall.

A recent study by Consumer Reports found that eight out of 10 people who succeeded in losing weight listed exercising three or more times per week as their No. 1 strategy. One good reason for that: Exercise increases mitochondrial function, which increases our metabolic rate so that we burn more calories even while at rest. Exercise also increases our energy levels and improves mood, which supports a healthy, balanced lifestyle. An ideal fitness program includes a balance of cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training. But the most important thing is to pursue activities you enjoy, that provide some level of challenge and that improve your fitness level over time.

But what about burning fat? “Don’t worry about it,” says Sally Edwards, MS, a leading fitness expert and heart-rate-training advocate. “Exercising merely to burn calories and fat rarely holds much appeal, and it’s not the most effective approach for lasting weight loss.”

“Exercising merely to burn calories and fat rarely holds much appeal, and it’s not the most effective approach for lasting weight loss.”

So what is? Fitness building. Challenge is what triggers metabolic change, Edwards notes. So if you’re challenging yourself enough to significantly improve your fitness, fat burning is another one of those things that will largely take care of itself.

Edwards recommends using a heart-rate monitor to make sure you’re challenging yourself adequately and hitting the right zones of intensity without overstressing yourself or wasting time and energy.

Plan to periodically review and expand your fitness program as you get stronger, more confident and more motivated. Once you have a base level of fitness (even a few weeks of regular activity that gets you breathing harder should do the trick), you can begin incorporating higher-intensity intervals or sprints into your workout. (For more on heart-rate-based interval training, see “A Better Way to Burn Fat.”)

Above all, advises Edwards, start thinking about exercise as a tool for better health and happiness. ”Instead of thinking about how much fat you want to lose,” she suggests, “start thinking about how healthy and fit you can become. Educate yourself about how your body works and how you can help it work better.” Even if exercising seems tough at the start, she notes, remember that it will rapidly become easier and more rewarding — even downright enjoyable — as your fitness improves.

Don’t be afraid to seek help in designing a fitness routine. And if you don’t enjoy exercising on your own, find a training group or group activity that will keep you motivated. Most cities have local running and walking clubs. Your local fitness center may offer group activities ranging from bike riding to basketball.

Monitoring your exercise activities in a journal or fitness log is a great way to keep track of your workout habits and progress, including weight loss. But don’t get obsessive about weighing yourself all the time. Instead, start paying closer attention to how your body feels and to the changes taking shape beneath the surface.

Fitness: Study-Guide Questions

  1. Have you shifted your exercise approach away from burning fat and toward building fitness?
  2. Have you identified a few different types of activity you enjoy? If working out alone doesn’t appeal to you, have you connected with a workout buddy or active group?
  3. Have you established a realistic workout schedule and made this time “sacred” in your calendar?
  4. Do you have access to the resources, expertise, gear and support you need (books, journal, shoes, heart-rate monitor, coach, etc.) in order to make progress?

As you put on muscle and lose fat, you will see and feel a positive difference. And if you don’t? More than likely, something is missing: It could be a lifestyle or psychological consideration, a food or nutrition component, or some combination of the above.

Start by running through this article’s study guides, asking yourself questions and looking for things you may have missed. Still baffled? Consider consulting an appropriate expert who can help illuminate blind spots, endow you with important skills or pull you out of a downward spiral.

Turn your weight-loss efforts into a learning experiment, the kind that makes you smarter and stronger. Your weight-loss efforts are bound to feel a lot less like effort, and a whole lot more like success.

Key Weight Loss 101 Concepts

  1. Establish a realistic goal: Think about what you want to achieve and why. Set a positive-minded, health-and-fitness-oriented goal — defined by behaviors you’re willing to change — that you know you can accomplish. Be specific and realistic.
  2. Find a support system: Surround yourself with people who can help you achieve your weight-loss goal, whether that’s a formal support group, a class, one-on-one counseling, or your friends and family.
  3. Think positively: Dial down destructive thinking and put your energy toward proactive steps that will take you to your goal. Stop thinking of yourself as fat and start focusing on how fit you can become.
  4. Use nutrition as an ally: Emphasize good nutrition and educate yourself about how it enables your body to control cravings and regulate its weight through healthy metabolism, hormones and genetic expression. Remember that you also need good nutrition to support your mood, immunity and fitness activities.
  5. Focus on fitness: Make your exercise less about burning calories than building metabolism and strength, growing your body confidence, and establishing a healthy lifestyle that includes active fun, play, challenge and adventure.
  6. Watch for positive change: But don’t get hung up on the scale. Pay more attention to how you look and feel — and how your clothes fit.
  7. Don’t rush the process: Sustainable and healthy weight loss isn’t a quick fix. It’s a life shift, one that offers tremendous rewards beyond weight loss. As your body gets healthier, weight loss will happen and healthy habits will start to feel automatic.
  8. Get help when you need it: If you aren’t making progress, get some expert help. You may have an underlying health condition or another unaddressed obstacle that requires attention.

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